God Is a Bullet

by Boston Teran

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

302 pages, 1999

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Chasing Demons

Reviewed by Charles Smyth


Years ago, author Boston Teran was drinking in a trashy and violent dive at the edge of a jungle in Thailand. Sitting next to him at the bar was a young guy -- part German, part Thai, all marijuana dealer -- who was getting wasted on beer, pills, and pot. Out back, a whorehouse and a cockfight pit vied for paying customers. Inside, the drug dealer got up from his barstool, walked over to the graffiti-infested wall, and scratched out a couple of lines. Asked for the English translation, he told Teran: GOD IS A BULLET RIGHT TO THE HEAD. YOU START TO FEEL BETTER THE MINUTE YOU'RE DEAD.

"God Is a Bullet" has gravitated from the wall of that lowlife bar to the cover of Teran's first novel. A scorching literary thriller, God Is a Bullet unfolds in the merciless desert of Southern California, in such places as Death Valley, Barstow, the Salton Sea, and El Centro. The landscape is best described by a character called the Ferryman, a shadowy "social renegade" living in a "dark tangle of slatboard and tin and cinder blocks stolen from a thousand piles of refuse along the road." The Ferryman tells a visitor that this area is "the center of the world":

His claw begins a slow sweep of the country. Second-handing from spot to spot in a twelve-o'clock crawl clockwise.

"There you got Death Valley. And there in the Panamint Mountains the forty-niners discovered silver. It's also where Charles Manson made up his party favors for Helter Skelter. Over there is the Nevada Test Site. Frenchman's Flat and Operation Buster Jangle. You know, they dressed up pigs like humans before they nuked 'em. Over there you got Vague-ass. Capital of the white-knuckled dice roller. And there you got the Early Man Site, and there Route 66 goes right through the largest hazardous waste dump in North America. There, Joshua Tree, and there the Sea of Cortez; each with the oldest species known to man on this continent. And there is America's favorite self-help nightmare: Little Armageddon....

"Shit, I left out Disneyland.... And all of that within four hundred miles."

Within those same 400 miles some very bad things happen in this brutally well-written story. You'll run into some people you never want to see anywhere else (not even here, for some readers) -- people it's easier to live happily knowing nothing about. You'll also meet an unlikely pair of heroes with more courage than survival instinct. Case Hardin (aka Headcase), a female ex-junkie who's endured unspeakable horrors, and Bob Hightower, a churchgoing sheriff's deputy-turned-frustrated-seatwarmer at headquarters, come together in a desperate attempt to rescue Hightower's teenage daughter from a feral cult of thrill-kill abductors:

They are a patchquilt of jeans and leathers. Bare-soled boots and chain-braided vests over scrubby T-shirts. One, a boy named Gutter, has a safety pin awled through his lower lip. Another, a girl named Lena, has her hair greased back and dyed up like a rainbow. Their faces and arms are tattooed with anarchistic designs. They have pistols and knives wedged into their belts and boots. As they fan into the darkness, they are a vision of post-apocalyptic rock-and-roll revenants.

This marauding pack might have escaped from the movies -- Mad Max or Near Dark -- or from Sam Shepard's play Tooth of Crime. The single-named Cyrus is their charismatically evil leader: "He is the scream from a silent razor across your throat," says a former follower. Teran rations the spotlight for Cyrus, careful to keep the villain's menace in unsettling suspense -- Where will he strike next? What will he do? What's he up to right now? The author knows that too much exposure for such a character weakens his malevolent grip on the reader. (Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter was onscreen for just 18 minutes in The Silence of the Lambs.)

So this is the body of Teran's story. Hardin and Hightower pursue Cyrus and his disciples, who have kidnapped Hightower's daughter after murdering the girl's mother (Hightower's ex) and stepfather, for no obvious reason. Although Hightower's the cop, Hardin's the tougher one. She has an ugly, unwilling history with Cyrus, and she'll do anything -- anything -- to settle the score. "When he got hold of me," Hardin tells Hightower, "I hadn't quite started to bleed yet and he was maybe twenty-six, twenty-seven." You'll seldom meet a more determined, more ferocious warrior, woman or man, than Case Hardin.

Case doesn't underestimate her enemy; she knows him too well for that. She also knows guns, and she buys a small arsenal of handguns and shotguns from the Ferryman. As a cop, Bob Hightower can handle weapons, too, but his desk duty has rusted his skills. Early in their pursuit, Case sees that for them to succeed -- or even survive -- Bob must turn savage, becoming more killer than cop. How his transformation happens, and the part she plays in it, is a compelling pleasure to read.

Indeed, God Is a Bullet is overall an enjoyable read, despite its unflinching descriptions of violence. But these descriptions are necessary -- this is a violent story. As the author explains on his Web site, "The level of violence is acutely accurate for the world these characters inhabit." And Teran, who grew up in an immigrant Italian world in the Bronx, is no stranger himself to violence and danger. "My relatives were mostly gamblers, con men, numbers runners, and thieves," he has said. It's also not surprising, given his background, that he uses a nom de plume. ("Boston Teran" sound Italian to you?)

Whatever his real name, Teran has written a powerful first novel. It's an ambitious book, and not everything works. Sudden philosophical exchanges amid swirling excitement and danger disrupt the carefully sustained narrative tension and threaten to derail the reader. And there's the occasional overwritten passage: "It is a muggy and deplorable night, even with the rain, that allows Case's shirt to play like the damp veil of some vestal sculpture. She begins to take on a strange elemental quality. Like the distant blue luminescence of the desert floor before the moon is full."

But the book has plenty of taut, muscular writing to offset these flaws. Here, for instance, is a description of a motel outside Mexicali in Baja California Norte:

The motel used to be a whorehouse that catered to Anglos who preferred their stuff with a little color in it. Now it's a roach hole for factory workers stacked sixteen to a room. Except for the back two units. One is where the bartender lives; the other is a playpen of sorts that's seen a little blood in its time.

The following sentence, describing Bob Hightower's father's job as the lone security guard for a defunct mine in the middle of the desert, could serve as a subtitle for the novel: "Heat and loneliness came in an assortment of colors, and you had ample time to brood."

And there's one more thing: If you ever hear somebody say, "You're crossing over," get the hell out of there.   | July 1999


CHARLES SMYTH, a freelance writer living in Seattle, has written several reviews for January Magazine.